Monday, December 11, 2006

Economics and Sustainability

Based on current economics, I estimate that the wealthiest countries would need to decrease their per capita GNP by an average of 12 percent per year to achieve ecological sustainability in 10 years. For the United States, the rate would be 17 percent. In terms of personal wealth, a person in the U.S. living on $30 an hour this year would be living on less than $5 an hour in 2016.

It is these kinds of statistics that generally scare people away from sustainable living, mainly because they miss two major points. The first point is the significance of the term “current economics,” and the second is the inevitability of the transition.

Much of the world’s economy is based on the use of cheap energy, bound in the form of fossil fuels. It is a fact that oil, the principal fossil fuel, is becoming more expensive to find and mine, while demand rises continuously. It is also a fact that fossil fuel use is the main contributor to global warming, which threatens to not only destroy civilization, but kill off most of the species on Earth (see my essay Global Warming and Mass Murder). We are fast approaching what I call an “energy transition” beyond which we will either have to be using primarily renewable resources or suffer huge population losses, which will of course be accompanied by economic losses. To thrive, the world economy will need to decouple the value of money from material consumption, rewarding efficiency and reuse instead of waste.

Estimates of the timing of the energy transition and the onset of uncontrollable global warming converge at less than ten years from now. For now, we can reduce consumption voluntarily, buying time until the economy can be transformed. A brute force approach would be to spend less money, at roughly the rates described above. A more surgical approach, enabling the economic transformation, would involve making purchases that reduce our ecological footprint (especially the amount of carbon consumed) and cutting back on population growth.

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